I was recollecting all the times I had struggled to fall asleep. It felt like thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hours staring, sweating, and anxiously stewing at the ceiling above me. Whether in my childhood home, the Parris Island receiving barracks, a random entry control point outside of Fallujah, or under the open California sky, finally being overcome with sleep was a relief.
Until the nightmares came flooding. Since I could remember, my dreams were contrasted by horrific abnormalities. Often fueled by the intensely hyper-real media we were consuming as kids, aliens, shape-shifting monsters, wood chippers, and other demonic hellions would invade my dream world.
“I’m so tired. I was up last night playing games.” A youthful version of myself told a friend over lunch.
“Your parents let you bring your Gameboy to bed?” Tom asked, amazed.
“No, no,” I tried explaining in between bites of cafeteria food. “It’s like I couldn’t shut my brain up. As soon as I could actually fall asleep, Mom was waking me up for school.”
I didn’t expect him to get it. I barely did. Some days during High School and Middle School, the insomnia could be so bad that I would sleep through English lectures. If you were to read my notes, you’d see the words becoming smaller and smaller until the pen was merely burrowing itself into the paper with no real direction or purpose. I’d wake up, startled by my micro-sleep, and continue to scratch notes until the sleep gripped me again. This would happen until the bell rang and we changed classes.
It didn’t get better over time. But I knew that sound, restful sleep was something I needed to prioritize. So when those bouts of anxiety crept up, I would ride the manic feeling, staying up late to write or practice an instrument. There was a sort of solace in these late night excursions, finding and building upon a creative voice. Some of my best work is done alone, late at night, riding a wave of emotions that seemed to spill on me from beyond.
Talking about sleep to Doctors was helpful, but jumping on the medication-for-sleep bandwagon was a step backward in my healing journey. One morning, I woke up with a paper plate and half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my lap.
“What the fuck?” I asked myself, carrying the plate into the kitchen to be disposed of.
To my horror, blueberry jerry splattered all over the ceiling, as if I’d smashed a giant blueberry man in his head with a pipe. Wide-eyed, gawking at the site, my roommate caught me in the kitchen, staring.
“What the hell happened here?” He groggily asked.
“I don’t even remember, man.”
I cleaned it up. I’m not an animal. But what blew me away was the sheer lack of memory of having gotten up in the middle of the night to make a sandwich. One that I would normally finish, mind you. PB&J is my favorite.
Moving forward in time a bit, I was able to lean a bit more into a healthier circadian rhythm. Sleep medications have come and gone, but I find them too unreliable compared to my cycle. And unless emotions are high and raw, the anxiety is typically tampered with enough to keep me from playing games.
But some nights are a walk on the weird side. As alluded to earlier, dreams have always been incredibly vivid for me. Nightmares are just the same. And now that I’ve got some great fuel to help get those scary dreams to the next level, I’ve realized that this burden, this weight of pain and suffering, can also be a source of humility, creativity, and possibly even transcendence, depending on which philosophical dogma I’m chewing on at the time.
The famed innovator of all things perverse and bio-mechanical, H.R. Giger, was also haunted in his sleep. The poor bastard also dealt with the horrors of sleep paralysis, a fairly common occurrence that leaves you trapped inside your body while still under the paralyzing effects of whatever chemical goodness happens in our brain to keep us (most of us) from thrashing around at night. I’m not a neurologist, but having experienced this first hand, I will admit it is highly terrifying and not a fun time.
But look at Giger’s art. It is profound. Maybe not “classic” in its truest sense, but undoubtedly iconic. That man’s mind had the ability to merge and blend bodies with machines in a way that only a surrealist like Dali could have concocted.
Sure, I’ll wake up screaming now and again. Maybe you do, too. I think it’s an evil mix of genetics and life experience. I can’t blame the DNA card I’ve been handed. And one doesn’t have to join the Marines and go to war to experience the brutish, violent nature of life. That’s just a fast-track option.
Part of me is grateful for the nightmares. The anxiety. The bouts of hyperactivity and depression. These elements have fueled countless insights, stories, and moments of feeling the raw complexities of our human condition. Take one step at a time and find gratitude. That’s my best advice.